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Walkability remains valuable in 21st century automobile era

There once was a time when convenience meant not having to drive the car every time you wanted to go somewhere.

Neighborhoods of the mid 20th century often had close proximity to stores, schools, churches and many of the other places people go on a regular basis. They were close enough to walk.

Almost all houses only had a single car garage. Families often owned just one car, and yet they managed to complete all their daily tasks without difficulty.

It was prior to the construction of large housing subdivisions and major commercial centers. City planning of the late 20th century tended to discourage walking. It divided housing from business development, often placing busy highways in between.

My neighborhood in Marshall was built in the late 1940s and early 1950s across the Redwood River from downtown. Seventy years later it’s still very walkable.

I’m a short distance from two convenience stores, four restaurants, a coffee shop, two art galleries, a three-floor museum, a movie theater and a bandshell. Sometimes it’s a pleasure to get to them by walking. By the time I park the car and walk from the car to the destination, I don’t save much time over just walking the whole way.

There’s something to be said for trying to bring back foot traffic. Many gallons of gas are used up in urban traffic jams. It’s a factor that keeps fuel prices elevated.

Another consideration is public safety. Networks of busy intersections and full parking lots create a potential for collisions, which can often lead to injuries or deaths. Areas that are walkable, and that are often walked by a sizable number of people, lend themselves to safety.

Possibly the best benefit of all is that walking has a social aspect. We’re likely to nod at our fellow pedestrians, and might even greet them.

All too often when we drive we see other cars as obstacles. We become absorbed in operating the machine known as a car, and might get frustrated if people don’t operate their machines in an efficient way. It can lead to road rage in extreme cases.

The automobile was a huge agent for social change in the 20th century. Much of it has been positive. Before cars became a standard, convenient public mobility was limited to about a mile from home.

With cars, everyone’s easy reach was extended to about 15 miles one way. It only takes about 20 minutes to travel those 15 miles.

Also it’s very easy to transport things in a car, much easier than having to carry everything in bags or in a backpack.

The negative side is dependence on a machine. It’s much the same with computers in the 21st century. They have many benefits, but also the downside of being glued to a desktop or a mobile device.

Over the years we’ve tried to come up with practical solutions to traffic, things like bypasses around population centers and protected left turns at stoplights. Walkability has also started to come into play.

One of the foremost examples is the pedestrian bridge that spans the Minnesota Highway 23 bypass in Marshall. Built at a cost of more than a half million, it’s designed to safely enable foot traffic to cross a bypass intersection. It’s within a short distance of Southview Elementary and Marshall Middle School.

Another example is the city-wide improvements to curbs this summer, which was designed to make them more pedestrian friendly and more accessible for people with disabilities.

It remains to be seen how much walkability can be incorporated into 21st century city planning. It’s worth consideration as part of any comprehensive plan process. Convenience is still a potentially valuable amenity.

— Jim Muchlinski is a longtime reporter and contributor to the Marshall Independent

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